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Collaboration Again: A Story From the Trenches

We’re working on a project for a client who needs two things: a lot of data that isn’t easily publicly available and the dreaded letters of collaboration from other local providers (which we’ve written about in the context of Susan G. Komen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Community-Based Job Training). We have to be vague on the details, but our client initially planned to serve a reasonable service area, and we wrote a draft proposal reflecting our client’s plan.

The plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy, however. Our client’s so-called “collaborators” sabotaged the proposed project service area: They refused to sign letters of collaboration unless our client reduced the proposed service area to stay off their “turf.” So much for collaboration among nonprofits. The overall concept of collaboration, as required in most proposals these days, is ludicrous. It’s the equivalent of Burger King getting to veto a McDonald’s location. Alternately, it’s the equivalent of the contemporary market for broadband Internet access, which is totally broken, as demonstrated by the link.

Still, our client can’t effectively get the grant without letters offered by the client’s competitors, who ganged up on our client. She had to change the proposed service and we had to revise the draft to reflect this. The losers are of course the low-income and underserved residents of the removed part of the service area, who will have one fewer option for help and who don’t get a voice in this process, which is occurring entirely behind closed doors.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: forcing nonprofits to “collaborate” makes no more sense than forcing businesses to collaborate.

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Issues Facing Old-Line Nonprofits Differ from Those Facing New Nonprofits: Think Bambi Meets Godzilla

We’ve written various posts on the challenges of starting a new nonprofit (like this one), mostly because we get lots of calls from fairly new nonprofits or folks trying to get one off the ground. Last week, however, I got a call from an agency in a large east coast city that’s been operating for about 200 years. I’m not making this up. The nonprofit originally was an orphanage that morphed into a broad-based children’s services agency.*

Though the caller was delighted to recite the exceptional history of his nonprofit, I didn’t get excited, as we we’ve worked for many nonprofits that have been around for decades—including one in a big Midwestern city that started in 1860s as a “settlement house” in the vein of Jane Adams’s Hull House. By now Seliger + Associates is older than many nonprofits.

While the caller was interested in a standard-issue federal RFP that’s on the street, we also talked over the challenges of keeping an Ancien Régime agency going in the face of an endless onslaught of Nouveau Riche competitors. Nonprofits face the innovator’s dilemma too. They must evolve over time and not get stuck in the “these are the services we provide” trap. It helps that most long-established nonprofits have contracts to provide capitated services or services with handy third-party payers (e.g., foster care, family reunification, residential care, primary health care, substance abuse treatment, etc.). Capitated-service agencies have a base cash flow, which they supplement with fundraising and grants (that’s were we come in).

Unlike new agencies, which are struggling for recognition and any funding scraps they can find, the main challenges old-line agencies face are relevance, ossification, and the inevitable disputes that arise with donors and funders.

Old-line agency must meet emerging needs. For example, there is apparently an astounding, sudden and unexplained surge of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into Texas this year, and they are essentially begging to be “caught” by the Border Patrol. This could reach as many as 100,000 random kids this year, who will overwhelm the current residential care capacity in the border states. The border patrol turns these kids over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which then hands them off to DHHS for transportation and temporary or permanent—depending on your interpretation of immigration laws—resettlement in small and big cities across America.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration is requesting $2 billion in new funding to address this human tidal wave or humanitarian crisis, once again depending on your point of view. I’m confident much of this money will end up as competitive grant opportunities from the DHHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). As the former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel put it, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

Say you’re our former midwestern client and have been around since the Civil War. You provide family and child support services but not residential care, so it’s essential to develop this capacity; thousands of Central American refugee children are likely to be dumped into your service area. You should meet this new crisis, as part of your mandate and mission, while at the same time bolstering your revenue with tidy ORR grants. This is a basic “win-win.”

Regarding ossification, old agencies are usually larger and bureaucratic, mimicking the funders that support them. It’s easy for a large, established nonprofit to become moribund, not only in the services they deliver, but also in the way in which services are delivered. Old agencies are less likely to adopt new technology and cultural practices—like contacting clients and conducing outreach through social media—because they do things the way they’ve always done things. Change is hard and inertia is seductive. This phenomenon is not limited to the nonprofit sector. Examples in business are common: huge companies like Motorola, Sears and IBM (before IBM reinvented itself under the remarkable CEO, Louis Gerstner) rise, lose focus or miss market shifts, and fall.

Finally, old-line nonprofits will often become embroiled in disputes with donors and funders. This can range from rich Mrs. Himmelfarb, who makes $100,000 annual donations, getting pissed off because she got seated at the wrong table at the nonprofit’s annual gala to the agency failing to submit required reports to the DOL for the agency’s YouthBuild grant. Once donors and/or funder program officers get annoyed with a large nonprofit, the organization may suddenly find itself in financial trouble.

Beneath the feet of every lumbering old-line dinosaur nonprofit are tiny new mammal nonprofits scouring around and trying to meet new community needs, provide nimble services in innovative ways, and eventually take away the big boy’s donations and grants.** The old-line nonprofit needs to address these upstarts by acting like Godzilla in Bambi Meets Godzilla, perhaps the best short film ever made.

* Fun fact: although it may be moving against the conventional wisdom to defend orphanages, Richard McKenzie explains why they’re often better than foster-style systems in “The Best Thing About Orphanages.” Saying “They’re better than the alternative” is not equivalent to saying, “They’re great!”

** Some grant programs are explicitly designed to provide challengers to incumbents; Community Health Centers (CHCs), for example, are eligible for “Service Area Competition” (SAC) grants. As readers of our e-mail newsletter know, the last two weeks have seen more than $150 million in SAC grants. Every geographic area in the U.S. is supposed to be covered by a SAC-funded agency, and every time a competition arises, new CHCs can try to wrest the grant from the existing grantee.

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Collaboration is Often Inefficient: The Camille Paglia, Mark Zuckerberg, and Chris Christie examples

Almost all RFPs include requirements for “collaboration” with local entities. Yet I recently read this from Camille Paglia:

After endless quarrels with authority, prankish disruptiveness, and impatience with management and procedure, I now see that hierarchical as both beautiful and necessary. Efficiency liberates; egalitarianism tangles, delays, blocks, deadens.

(Emphasis added.)

Furthermore, in the fascinating article “Schooled: Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg had a plan to reform Newark’s schools. They got an education,” Dale Russakoff writes:*

Early in the summer of 2010, Booker presented Christie with a proposal, stamped “Confidential Draft,” titled “Newark Public Schools—A Reform Plan.” It called for imposing reform from the top down; a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. “Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,” the proposal said. Seeking consensus would undercut real reform.

(Emphasis added.)

Neither hierarchical nor egalitarian decision processes are automatically better. They’re different. Highly open, transparent processes work in some situations and don’t work in others. You’d never know that from reading contemporary RFPs, however, which make endless consensus building sound like an eternal truth akin the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Many if not most successful companies aren’t run on a primarily consensus basis. At Apple, if Steve Jobs said the bezel should be one millimeter, then the bezel was one millimeter regardless of what anyone else thought. He got the right answers, at least in terms of revenue. The bosses at Google appear to get a lot of answers right. As we’ve said before, nonprofits are more like businesses than is commonly realized. They compete with each other, and within the organization the Executive Director can (usually) fire people at will. That’s particularly true when an Executive Director says, “This is the way it’s going to be,” and a subordinate staff member refuses, or wants to keep litigating after a decision has been made.

Sometimes fast, “wrong” decisions are better than slow, “right” decisions—and open, transparent, consensus-driven projects can be subject to self-interest. In Seattle, for example, it has taken literally decades to build even very simple light rail lines, in part because every constituent along the way first had to be consulted and then had to file a lawsuit, which had to be fought, and only then could the effort proceed. We’ve got so much process involved that in building that we’re too often unable to build anything.

In the real world, organizations collaborate to the extent they need to and don’t collaborate to the extent they don’t. Smart executive directors ask knowledgable parties for information and input, then they make the best decisions they can based on the information they have.

That can mean telling someone they don’t get what they want. That’s how life works, as Paglia understands. Subordinates who are sufficiently disruptive might eventually be fired. Those who think current management is dumb can decide that “You Don’t Have to be in a Shithole Nonprofit.” For most nonprofits in most fields, quitting and starting a new nonprofit is a viable option. There are some situations in which the local powers-that-be can block new entrants to market—as anyone who wants to provide homeless services and gets crosswise with their local Continuum of Care can attest—but in most situations grants, whatever their other flaws, are a market-based system.

Someone who thinks they can do it better than the competition can make a go. We’ve worked for lots of upstart nonprofits that want to take grants or contracts away from the local heavies. We’ve also worked for lots of incumbent nonprofits worried about local upstarts (threatening the local power structure is one way to ensure that better proposals get written). Neither upstarts nor incumbents are inherently “better.” The situation is always situational. Too bad RFP writers don’t realize it.

* We’ve worked for clients in Camden, albeit smaller but very similar to Newark, and parts of the article read like our needs assessments.

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Is It Really a Partnership, Or Is It a Convenient Arrangement To Get the Money?

Is it really love if she only comes back for $300 an hour?

Is it really a partnership if one person holds a gun to the other’s head?

Does Microsoft really care about your business when they’ve kept you on hold for an hour, listening to aggravating muzak, only to tell you that they won’t give you the product key you need?

In grant writing, when you can’t get other local agencies to partner with you for a grant application, it’s often time to offer them a subcontract or some other piece of the action that can be measured in dollars. The piece you want or need can vary with the grant or the importance of the agency to the project and the nature of the project, but if you need the partnership badly enough you’ll pay for it.

In some circumstances this isn’t optimal, and if you’re paying for partnerships you might also be moving other local agencies from an economy based on gifts, favors, and reciprocity to one based on straightforward money—which might make accomplishing your actual goals harder. (Lewis Hyde describes gift versus exchange economies in The Gift, and there’s a rich economics literature on the subject too.) Many organizations, like many interpersonal relationships, don’t exist in a solely gift or solely mercantile space; they operate somewhere in between, and whether a relationship primarily involves gifts or fee-for-service depends a myriad of factors that are beyond the scope of this blog post.

But if an organization doesn’t want to help you out of the goodness of their hearts, or out of the promise that you’ll be their nominal partner on some future project, then money might be your only route forward. School districts are notoriously difficult in this regard, largely because they know that they’ll get ADA money regardless of whether they provide Joe’s Nonprofit with a letter.

Sometimes, however, Joe’s Nonprofit can strike back by getting the local newspaper to write an article about how the district’s intransigence might cost the community a $500,000 grant. A couple of years ago, we were writing a HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) proposal for a city in California. The LBPHC requires specific health metrics and interventions that are the domain of counties in California. The cognizant agency at first refused to cooperate with our client. We suggested that our client call the county rep and tell her that the next call would be to the newsperson, so that a story about why the county wants young low-income children to be poisoned could run. The county immediately agreed to cooperate and provided a strong letter and data. The proposal was funded. And our client didn’t have to offer any money to get it funded.

Given the realities of “partnerships,” why are funding agencies so interested in partnerships? We’ve addressed this question before, in posts like “Is it Collaboration or Competition that HRSA Wants in the Service Area Competition (SAC) and New Access Points (NAP) FOAs?” and “There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” and “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point.” As we’ve said, genuine partnerships might be appropriate and useful in some circumstances, but much of the time they just look cosmetic, as we’ve discovered from talking to clients who are attempting to wrangle partnerships out of recalcitrant agencies.

When partnerships are primarily cosmetic, I suspect the larger issue is, like so much of grant writing, one of signaling.* In grant writing, partnerships are a kind of social proof—if you can get other people to agree to associate with you, their association is a form of implicit approval of your actions. If you’ve ever seen bars where one guy seems to be talking to all the women in the place, you’re in part seeing social proof at work; if you’ve been reluctant to eat an empty restaurant or happy to wait for a table at a full one, you’ve also seen it.

Among grant applicants, partnerships are being used to prove that the applicant and jump through a large number of somewhat arbitrary hoops, in the hopes that those applicants with the fortitude, tenacity, and skill necessary to do so are also the ones most likely to operate programs well.

* Robin Hanson has written extensively about signaling and its pervasiveness in human social life; his recent post “How Social Are Signals?” is a good place to start if you’re curious. Unfortunately, he hasn’t written a book about signaling and other aspects of his blogging life, so there’s no large-scale guide to his thinking on the subject. Yet.

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Is it Collaboration or Competition that HRSA Wants in the Service Area Competition (SAC) and New Access Points (NAP) FOAs?

HRSA just issued a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA, which is HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Service Area Competition (SAC). SAC FOAs are issued each year for different cities and rural areas in which HRSA has existing section 330 grantees, including Community Health Centers (CHCs), Migrant Health Center (MHCs), Health Care for the Homeless (HCHs), and Public Housing Primary Cares (PHPCs). Without going too far inside baseball, as section 330 grantee contracts expire, HRSA groups them together and forces them to reapply while encouraging other organizations to complete for the contracts. Hence the word “competition” in SAC.

SAC applicants are required to respond to a section of the FOA called “Collaboration” by describing “both formal and informal collaboration and coordination of services with other health care providers, specifically existing section 330 grantees, FQHC Look-Alikes, rural health clinics, critical access hospitals and other federally-supported grantees.” I’m guessing that if your organization is applying to take the contract away from the current Section 330 grantee, that grantee is probably not going to be in much of a mood to collaborate with your application and give you a letter of support.

To put a requirement for “collaboration” in a FOA that uses the term “competition” in its title demonstrates HRSA’s cluelessness. A particularly fun aspect of the SAC FOA is that HRSA pats itself on the back by stating in the Executive Summary that “For FY 2011, the HRSA has revised the SAC application in order to streamline and clarify [emphasis added] the application instructions.” The instructions are 112 single-spaced pages and the response is limited to 150 pages! And there a two-step application process involving an initial application submitted through our old friend, as well as a second application with a second deadline through a HRSA portal called Electronic Handbooks (EHBs). That’s what I call streamlining and clarifying. I would hate to see the results if HRSA tried to complicate and obscure the application process.

HRSA has another FOA process underway for the New Access Points (NAP) program, which I recently wrote about in “The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Finally Issues a New Access Points (NAP) FOA: $250,000,000 and 350 Grants! (Plus Some Important History).” A quick search of the FOAs reveal that the term “collaboration” is used at least 32 times in the NAP FOA, compared to 8 times in the SAC FOA. I suppose collaboration is four times as important in writing a NAP proposal that in writing a SAC proposal. For those with inquiring minds, the word “competition” is not used at all in the NAP FOA. As far as I can tell, HRSA does not let NAP applicants know that, if they are successful, they will eventually have to compete to keep their contract, while simultaneously committing to collaborating with their competitors. Since I have written many NAP and SAC proposals, I know how to thread this word needle by writing out of both sides of my Mac. But novice grant writers and new HRSA applicants will find this a challenge.

For more of my reasoning on the essential pointlessness of requiring grant applicants to profess their undying commitment to collaboration, see “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point.”

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There will be no fighting in the war room: nonprofit non-collaboration and Susan G. Komen

In “Charity Brawl: Nonprofits Aren’t So Generous When a Name’s at Stake,” Clifford M. Marks explains the lengths to which Susan G. Komen for the Cure—a very large, successful nonprofit—will go to protect what it thinks is its brand and the phrase “for the cure,” particularly in conjunction with the color pink. Komen hounds other nonprofits, even those sister nonprofits battling other forms of cancer, such as lung cancer, who get too close to what they think is their turf.

Basically, Komen is acting like BP protecting their dumb flower logo or Apple and Apple Records fighting over an image of, well, an apple. As I wrote in April in “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point,” nonprofits are really in competition with one another and most talk of collaboration is the stuff of fairy tales and true believers.

The hammer and tongs approach used by Komen shows that, while the organization wants to cure cancer, it also wants to make sure it does the curing itself by protecting its brand and ability to raise money. Self-aggrandizement is not exclusive to the political and business worlds. I’m sure that if one pokes through Komen’s marketing materials, lip service will be paid to collaboration, but the fangs come out when another nonprofit gets too close to their food bowl. As Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley says in Dr. Strangelove, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.” I paraphrase, “Gentle nonprofits, you can’t fight with one another. Let’s all just collaborate, but don’t go anywhere near my donors.”

EDIT: The New York Times is picking up on this: “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.” The number of people who orient their lives to research instead of emotion is small.

Komen’s behavior reinforces our point: nonprofits are more like businesses than most people realize.

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Grant Writing Confidential Scoops the Wall Street Journal and More on Being Creative in Finding Funds During the Great Recession

As the editor of my high school newspaper—the Cooper High School Hawk’s Quill—and a short-lived college journalism major, I take great delight in scooping the Wall Street Journal. Shelly Banjo wrote Donations Slip Amid Anxiety on June 9, which said:

For the second year in a row, philanthropy has seen the deepest decline ever recorded by the Giving USA Foundation, which has tracked annual giving since 1956. Donations fell 3.6% to $303.75 billion last year, down from $315 billion in 2008, according to the latest Giving USA study, released Wednesday. In 2008, they were down 2%.

Faithful readers will note that I made more or less the same point in my May 29 blog post, Tough Times for Folks Means More Grant Writing for Nonprofits, although with more humor and helpful advice. If one read Ms. Banjo’s article and knew little about nonprofits, one would get the impression that the end is nigh. This is because her article, like most stories about nonprofits, perpetuates the conventional wisdom that all nonprofits depend exclusively on donations, which is simply not true.

As I pointed out in my post, while donations are important, particularly for certain kinds of nonprofits, most human services providers support their service through grants, fee-for-service contracts, third-party payers and/or quasi-business enterprises, in addition to donations.* These alternative revenue streams, which can be ramped-up when donations are down, are not mentioned by Ms. Banjo and the cast of nonprofit “experts” she quotes and data she cites.

Although new contributions to foundations may be down, foundations still must give away 5% or so of their endowment every year, and the feds, through the Stimulus Bill and lots of other appropriations, have keep the grant spigot wide open. Cagey nonprofit executive directors are busy writing grant proposals and dreaming up other revenue strategies, not wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth over declines in donations. But not in the conventional wisdom world of newspaper writers.

A second Wall Street Journal article by Jennifer Levitz and Stephanie Simon on June 12, “A School Prays for Help”, confirms the importance of getting creative during tough times. While this article mostly discusses public schools, police departments and other public agencies seeking alternative funding sources, the same concepts apply to nonprofits.

In this article, the writers describe how some schools are getting local churches to “adopt” them and other strategies for what amounts to advertising in order to supplement limited tax dollars. Nonprofits can do the same sorts of things instead of just waiting around for donations to pickup.

One of the several odd aspects of a church providing donations to a public school, however, is that the church itself is a nonprofit that depends almost exclusively on donations from its members. Why would they do this? One reason could be that the church expects to get new members from school parents and staff, and they will eventually try to extract donations from the new members. In other words, the church and the school are probably competing for donor dollars and the church may be taking the longer view that investing a small amount of its money now, derived from its members, will result in more members and more money later.

While most nonprofits and public agencies like to present themselves as collaborating, in reality they compete with one another for donations, grants, and all kinds of resources. I pointed this out in What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point, a post that generated quite a comment thread.

Some readers understood my point, while other denounced me as a hopeless cynic. Of course, I am a hopeless cynic, but nonprofits and public agencies are largely in competition, and the ongoing economic mess just makes this competition rise to surface, like the somewhat baleful giant crocodile in the best “big animal” movie of recent years, Lake Placid.

* Jake also wrote about funding sources in Bratwurst and Grant Project Sustainability: A Beautiful Dream Wrapped in a Bun.

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Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It

Isaac’s post “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point” generated a lot of interesting comments. I responded to a couple of them, and I’d also like to offer one point of clarification to the original post: Isaac wasn’t saying collaboration is always a waste of time, bad, or whatever. If a genuine need for collaboration exists, it makes sense to collaborate.

I can’t think of an obvious, specific example of this off the top of my head, but I’m sure some exist. Still, the problem that Isaac points out remains: requiring collaboration for the sake of collaboration has a number of problems with it, which he enumerated, and often goes against the incentives that many nonprofit and public agencies have, especially regarding their own self-interest. As a result, the demand for extensive collaboration widens the gap between the real world and the proposal world.

As I said in the comments section of the post, I get the impression that some commenters are True Believers. It’s all well and good to be a True Believer, as long as being one doesn’t interfere with one’s ability to write proposals that will get an organization funded—and hence keep its doors open.

A couple specific points that I responded to:

“In this way, even if a collaboration folds, duplication of future efforts may be reduced.”

Duplication of effort isn’t a major problem with social services because there are almost always more people chasing the service than there are slots. The desire for free services will always be greater than the supply.

In addition, collaboration itself is a cost in the form of chasing letters and contacts.

Still, as @Nikki # 3 points out, not all collaboration is meaningless — when there is a genuine problem that needs multiple entities to solve it, people will tend to cooperate. Forcing that model on all problems is the problem.

Another person said:

“It is short sighted to think that any one organization can provide the complete continuum of services needed by the target population.”

In the proposal world, you’re right. In the real world, there is no continuum of services and the target population is far vaster than the organizations providing services. This probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, since if you’re offering products or services that are subsidized or free, you will almost always have more people chasing them than you can handle. Dan Ariely discusses the love of free in his book Predictably Irrational, which is very much worth reading.

If you’re offering something that’s subsidized or free, there will almost always be more demand of it than you can provide—just like there are always more nonprofits chasing donations than there are millionaires to make those donations, as we’ve pointed out before. Chances are good that providers of virtually any service are running at or over capacity; they don’t need more people to provide services too, unless there’s money attached to the provision of those services.

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What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point

Among the many oddities of writing proposals is that most RFPs require that the applicant demonstrate extensive collaborations or form partnerships. I don’t know why RFPs demand this, because it is unlikely that a collaboration between McDonald’s and Burger King would result in a better burger (McWhopper?). The feds specifically preclude businesses from “collaborating” through a host of laws designed to protect competition. But in the world of nonprofits and public agencies, alleged collaborations and partnerships are demanded.

A case in point is the Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training Program, for which we are writing a proposal on behalf of a very large community college district. This SGA (“Solicitation of Grant Availability,” since DOL disdains the pedestrian term, “RFP”) has a long-winded section on required “partnerships and strategic planning” for a competitive proposal. What makes this funny is that the primary applicants for this program are community colleges, which are key local training providers and presumably have the capacity to simply operate yet another training effort all by themselves.

Our client, for example, has over 100,000 students in dozens of certificate and degree programs. Why would a community college district like this need to collaborate with any other entity, especially considered the administrative overhead necessary, unless it was in a mood to do so? All colleges and universities compete constantly with one another for students, endowments, star faculty, state and private operating funds, grants and, for that matter, high quality basketball players. In preparation for tonight’s NCAA Championship Game, I don’t think Duke’s crusty and cagey Coach K will have met with Butler’s young phenom coach Brad Stevens to discuss a collaborative game plan or share recruiting ideas for the incoming class.

In the proposal world where Seliger + Associates lives, collaborations are omnipresent in our drafts, and we spin elaborate tales of strategic planning and intensive involvement in development of project concepts, most of which are woven out of whole cloth to match the collaborative mythology that funders expect (remember: your grant story needs to get the money). In many ways, grant writers are myth makers, or maybe more appropriately myth tellers, sort of like West African “griot” who pass on ancestral knowledge, albeit in written rather than verbal form. At some point, I’ll write a long post on grant writer as myth teller, but in the context of collaboration, this particular myth only goes back about 20 years or so.

I don’t recall any interest among funders in having nonprofits collaborate with each other when I first started writing human services proposals in the early 1970s. The first whiff of collaboration I encountered was something called the “A-95 Review Process” when I was the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA in the late 70’s. This Carter-era gem required local governments to circulate their draft grant proposals to other government agencies for review and comment before submission, which made pre-computer grant writing deadlines really hard to meet. In LA, this function was handled by the wonderfully named SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments), which published a weekly compendium of proposed grant applications. A-95 was supposed to encourage cities to collaborate with each other. At Lynnwood, we reviewed the SCAG A-95 bulletin closely to see if we could screw up a competing city’s proposal by commenting and forcing them to respond in hopes of getting them to blow the deadline, while we got ours in on time. Competing cities responded in kind, so this attempt at intergovernmental cooperation quickly devolved into a farce.

In 1982, the profoundly dumb A-95 process was junked by the Reagan Administration in favor of Executive Order 12372, which let the states decide which proposals to review and how to do the review, while making both public agencies and nonprofits participate. I’m fairly confident that virtually all of the thousands of EO 12372 notifications we sent to states on behalf of clients since 1993 were simply thrown out. I can only recall one incident, about 12 years ago, in which our client actually received an inquiry from the EO 12372 notice we sent in. Over the years, all but 10 states have abandoned EO 12372, though you’ll still see it immortalized on every SF-424, which is the cover sheet for most federal proposals. So much for forced planning and collaboration at the federal and state level.

From 1978 to 1993, I worked for cities and, to the extent I wrote proposals, I wrote them mostly for economic development and affordable housing programs. When I started Seliger + Associates in 1993 and returned to writing human services proposals, about the only thing that surprised me was that government and foundation funders had discovered the wonders of collaboration during my 15-year hiatus. We’ve developed lots of ways of conforming to the mythology of collaboration through clever and obfuscating proposalese, because our clients typically compete tooth and nail with other providers for grants, donations, volunteers, and, in some cases, clients, particularly those with third-party payers (think substance abuse treatment and primary health care). The alleged “collaborations” we conjure up last just long enough to get the grant and are usually confirmed by “letters of commitment” attached to the proposal. I hate to break it to the funders, but agencies trade these letters with one another like the Magic: The Gathering cards that Jake collected when he was about 10.

The only folks who do not seem to be in on the collaboration joke are funders, who earnestly believe in the myth that nonprofits should collaborate, like kindergartners told to share. I even recently spotted a reference about “administrative collaboration” in The Grantsmanship Center’s “Centered” newsletter, quoting The Nonprofit Times as follows: “As the recession saps their grantmaking capacity, many funders are directly or indirectly urging their grantees to cooperate or collaborate more.” I have news for The Grantsmanship Center and The Nonprofit Times: funders were just as in love with collaboration before the Great Recession and will likely remain so when good times return. Keep in mind that it is vastly easier to form new nonprofits than it is to find millionaires and corporations to set up foundations to fund the avalanche of new nonprofits. So why would an average nonprofit want to help the agency down the street?

Adding to the humorous aspect of the faux foundation concern for collaboration is that foundations actually compete one another for prestige, telegenic grantees and the like. Or have you ever wondered why it is necessary for a foundation like the MacArthur Foundation to “advertise” their support for PBS programming at the start and the end of the program?

Funders are just as interested in playing the status and competition game as any other kind of organization. But if they want to pretend that nonprofit and public agencies collaborate, then nonprofit and public agencies will happily maintain the facade to get funded.

EDIT: You can read more about these problems in “Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It” and “There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” both of which offer further examples of dubious collaboration run amok.